This is Part 2 to our ongoing series of articles looking at John Carpenter's unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy featuring 'The Thing', 'Prince of Darkness' and 'In the Mouth Of Madness'. Before continuing please check out Part 1.
In the 1980's the horror genre was becoming oversaturated by slashers with each more derivative than the last. John Carpenter's apathy towards the state of the genre pushed him into developing something more original. When Debra Hill (a frequent collaborator on Carpenter's work) told him about a dream she had in which a dark figure was exiting a church, she described how it had filled her with so much dread. This inspired Carpenter to come up with a film that would instil the same fear and dread into audiences laying the foundations for what would become his 1987 film 'Prince of Darkness'.
Carpenter's fascination with religion may have been sparked by being read the book of Revelations in elementary school but his love of Hammer horror films, particularly the 1958 classic 'Dracula' (known as 'Horror of Dracula' in the US) where evil is defeated with a cross and holy water, marked the point where the intrigue really took hold. This coupled with his love of science (particularly in the field of Quantum Mechanics) led him down the road of developing something where these two worlds would collide.
The second part in his unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy, the film follows a group of quantum physics and ancient language students led by their professor to investigate a cylinder of ancient liquid at the behest of a priest. They soon discover the liquid is a sentient and physical embodiment of evil which is determined to bring about the end of the world. On paper this premise sounds ridiculous but as with a lot of his science fiction or horror projects the manner in which Carpenter approaches it makes it more believable. In the making of documentary 'Sympathy for the Devil' he states that it is his "most controlled films visually..." which is "...specifically designed to communicate something" and this is abundantly clear in the manner in which he frames a number of the shots. After the son of the anti-God begins to take over the group, wide shots where empty spaces are shrouded in darkness keep the audience on edge insinuating that anyone or anything could be lurking there.
His use of imagery throughout gives the film an overall foreboding atmosphere. The opening image of the priest on his death bed clutching a metal box as the film's atmospheric score, which haunts the opening credits with it's unrelenting synth bass and choir of despairing voices, masterfully establishes this tone of mystery and dread. What follows is a series of disturbing images, such as a crescent moon over the sun and a mound of ants clambering over each other, foreshadowing a great change in the natural world that is making way for something sinister. All the while the same score plays over these images reinforcing the idea that evil exists at subatomic level, invisible but surrounding events as they unfold. Whilst 'The Thing' is about the destruction of the self from within in the face of impending doom, 'Prince of Darkness' is about the erosion of faith in similar circumstances. Be it faith in God or science, both belief systems become increasingly tested in the face of the apocalypse. The priest (Donald Pleasence) is at conflict with what truth is in his belief system as the secrets of the Brotherhood of Sleep are unveiled. Similarly Professor Birack (Victor Wong) faces a conflict in his beliefs as his understanding of reason and order in the universe are turned upside down with the ancient discovery before him. Whilst faith is weakened in both aspects, evil grows in strength indifferent to all around it. It's time has come.
The majority of the action takes place in an abandoned church where the cylinder containing the son of the anti-God stands in a dilapidated candlelit room surrounded by crucifixes. It adds a gothic flavour to the film standing out amidst debates of science and religion and the awkward love story subplot. The idea of this ancient entity evokes themes of Lovecraft as the anti-God is comparable to the Elder Gods, asleep but waiting to be awakened to bring about the end of the world. Perhaps one of the most important scenes of the film comes with the translation of the Brotherhood of Sleep's tome explaining how the cylinder containing the son of the anti-God came to be in the church. It involves details of how Jesus was an extraterrestrial being and how he was tasked to hiding the cylinder until humanity was technologically advanced enough to defeat it. Any reasonable person would find this story questionable to say the least given how bizarre it sounds. As Brian (played by Jameson Parker) says,"faith is a hard thing to come by these days". The varying degrees scepticism or willingness to believe in this translation is shown by each character in the group but one thing that runs throughout them is fear, a fear of the unknown.
Once members of the group begin to have the same dream transmitted from the year 1999, they are shown the outcome of their inaction to stop the coming of the anti-God as a dark figure emerges from the church. This disturbing image may make them more inclined to believe in the words of the tome but it also makes them more fearful, setting in motion a battle of wills between good and evil.
When the most sceptical of the group, Wyndham (played by Robert Grasmere) opts to leave the church, he is confronted and killed by a group of murderous homeless people (led by Alice Cooper) who have fallen under the influence of the son of the anti-God. His subsequent insect infused resurrection sparks an eerie moment in the film as he tells the group with a distorted voice "pray for death" before falling apart before them. This horrific image tries to instil the idea that the coming of darkness into the world is inevitable whether or not you believe in it. The true goal of evil is to destroy your faith and resolve to make a dominion of darkness easier to attain.
As the group are killed one by one, succumbing to the influence of the anti-God, Kelly (played by Susan Blanchard) has become a host for the son of the anti-God. She is the final piece in the puzzle as she is required to reach into the realm of anti-matter through a mirror to bring her father into this world triggering the end of everything. As the priest hides, clutching his bible, he searches for help asking God where he is but he gets no reply. No matter how much their faith is chipped away and how slim it is, it is their main weapon in defeating evil. In the end Catherine sacrifices herself by pushing the possessed Kelly along with herself through the mirror into the world of the anti-matter before the priest shatters the mirror with an axe, trapping them both inside, seemingly defeating evil once and for all. As the priest leaves the church he is convinced that it has been accomplished through the grace of God. His faith restored with an exasperated smile he is certain that evil has been conquered once and for all. The professor however isn't quite as convinced. He knows that the anti-God still lies in wait in the realm of anti-matter. It is an interesting comparative view between the absolute nature of the belief systems in religion compared to the more open minded views within science.
Carpenter leaves the film with just enough ambiguity though as Brian awakens from a nightmare where he pictured Catherine as the dark figure leaving the church. He approaches a nearby mirror and reaches out (just as the possessed Kelly had before) thinking he can bring her back. Before he makes contact with it the camera cuts to black. It raises questions over whether the end has been prevented or was it merely just delayed? It all boils down to what you believe. Can evil be defeated or does the omnipotent nature of evil mean that the end of the world is inevitable?
Ending on the most hopeful (if you can even say that) note in his Apocalypse trilogy, 'Prince of Darkness' is a film brimming with some left-field ideas that on paper are downright silly. With Carpenter's commitment in his approach they are handled in a serious way, where the mood and tone are what is most prominent throughout, not the plot. He plays to his strengths by making it a siege film with threats from the outside as well as within. His focus on faith and how it is tested in the face of impending doom is what stands out more than anything allowing the film to endure as well as find a new audience.
- Joseph McElroy